Theresa Villiers is Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and MP for Chipping Barnet
It’s now nearly 20 years since the first paramilitary ceasefires in Northern Ireland and just over sixteen years since the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement was signed. Today we’re over half way through the second term of the second Assembly since devolution was restored in May 2007 – the longest period of unbroken devolved government in Northern Ireland since the closure of the Stormont Parliament in 1972.
Yet for all that the Executive has proven stable and delivered in a number of areas, there is a clear public perception that more still needs to be done.
One of the central features of the 1998 settlement was to bring together politicians from different traditions and show that they could deliver for the good of the people of Northern Ireland as a whole. It’s crucial that we make it work – to help the transition away from the politics of identity to a stronger focus on the politics of delivery.
So how can we move politics in Northern Ireland forward?
First, the political situation would be significantly improved if the parties could reach an agreement on dealing with flags, parading and the past, the issues considered last year by a group chaired by former US diplomat, Richard Haass. We’ve seen over the past couple of years how disputes on these issues can lead to serious public disorder and poison the political atmosphere.
This was demonstrated most recently by the controversy over the so-called ‘On-the-Runs’. These matters are now being examined by the judge-led inquiry established by the Prime Minister; but I should reiterate one point.
Conservatives do not believe in amnesties. If at any point when we inherited the On-the-Run scheme from Labour in May 2010 we had believed that it amounted to an amnesty we would have stopped it immediately. We believe in the rule of law – and people who have committed terrorist crimes must face the consequences wherever the evidence exists to prosecute.
The reaction to the Downey case reinforces the need to find an agreed way forward on the past. It has to be one that is balanced, transparent and accountable, and which allows us to put the era of side deals firmly behind us.
So I welcome the fact that the party leaders are continuing their work on the three Haass issues. I am urging them to stick with it, because only an agreement negotiated by Northern Ireland’s own locally elected political leadership is going to be viable.
Of course I appreciate the concern that new structures and processes could lead to a one sided approach, with a focus on the minority of deaths in which the state was involved rather than the great majority which were solely the responsibility of terrorists.
Yet I believe there is scope for new structures to incorporate from the start the need for objective balance and with proper weight and a proportionate focus on the wrongdoing of paramilitaries.
There is also the opportunity for structured oversight by bodies representing different shades of opinion to try keep the process fair and historically accurate, and to prevent it being hijacked by any one particular interest group or viewpoint.
The need for a fresh approach on the past is also becoming ever more vital because of the increasing pressure the status quo is placing on Northern Ireland’s institutions, with inquests, cases in Strasbourg, freedom of information requests and Troubles-related investigations by the police and Police Ombudsman.
All this is puts a major burden on the policing and justice system with a recent report estimating that the Northern Ireland Executive now spends over £30m a year on legacy issues. I also believe that agreement on the Haass issues could free up the space for politicians to focus more strongly on other matters which are critical to our future such as rebalancing the economy.
My second point about moving politics forward is the need to recognise that difficult choices are often needed in order to deliver the services the public want and expect.
These include the Northern Ireland Assembly passing the legislation to allow the National Crime Agency to work properly in Northern Ireland; taking forward the implementation of welfare reform; and boosting jobs, growth and competitiveness with labour market reform, planning reform and public sector reform.
The third way in which politics could be moved forward here is through the evolution of the devolved institutions.
Power sharing and inclusivity are enshrined in the Belfast Agreement and the Government is not going to undermine any of those principles. Yet at the same time nobody can plausibly argue that the institutions must be set in stone for all time.
There are inherent weaknesses in a system in which it is very difficult to remove one’s rulers by voting and to choose a viable alternative. That’s why this Government is clear that we would welcome moves that facilitate a more normal system at Stormont that allows for formal opposition, so long as a way can be found to do this which is consistent with power sharing and inclusivity.
But we also believe that if or how this happens really has to be primarily for parties in the Assembly to take forward. This is because it is firmly within the Assembly’s competence to deal with those matters that might characterise an opposition – such as speaking rights, financial assistance and committee chairmanships.
So in conclusion, we need to move away from the politics of the past, based largely around identity, to the politics of the future, based around delivery. Our ability to do that will be greatly strengthened if an accommodation can be reached on flags, parading and the past, three issues that continue to create such tension, division and disorder.
At the same time some difficult decisions are needed from Northern Ireland’s polticial leadership if we’re to build a more prosperous economy, a safer community and a stronger society. And we should also consider the scope for our political institutions to evolve in order to ensure that our democracy is vibrant and politicians held properly to account.
This article is based on a speech delivered yesterday by the Secretary of State.